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December 13th, 2013
09:30 AM ET

Call Jesus (or Santa) white? Expect a big fight

Opinion by Edward J. Blum, special to CNN

(CNN) - Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly sparked outrage this week by insisting that Jesus and Santa Claus are both white, saying it's "ridiculous" to argue that depicting Christ and St. Nick as Caucasian is "racist."

"And by the way, for all you kids watching at home, Santa just is white," Kelly said, "but this person is arguing that we should also have a black Santa."

Kelly was responding to an article in Slate that said St. Nick needs a makeover from fat, old white guy to something less "melanin-deficient."

The Fox News host would have none of it.

"Just because it makes you feel uncomfortable doesn't mean it has to change," Kelly said. "Jesus was a white man, too. It's like we have, he's a historical figure; that's a verifiable fact. As is Santa, I just want kids to know that. How do you revise it in the middle of the legacy, in the story, and change Santa from white to black?"

Arguing about St. Nick, who was originally Greek before Currier & Ives got their hands on him, is one thing. But as for Jesus, people have been arguing about his skin color since the earliest days of American history. You might even call it an American tradition.

What's new about this latest brouhaha is how swiftly Kelly’s remarks were attacked. Thousands of people have rebuked her through blogs, articles, Twitter posts and Facebook updates.

Comedian Jon Stewart accused Kelly of "going full Christmas nog."

“And who are you actually talking to?" Stewart said on "The Daily Show." "Children who are sophisticated enough to be watching a news channel at 10 o’clock at night, yet innocent enough to still believe Santa Claus is real — yet racist enough to be freaked out if he isn’t white?”

It seems that now, if you want to call Christ — or even Santa — white, you should expect a fierce fight.

The immediate and widespread rebuttal showcases how much America has changed over the past few decades. The nation not only has a black president, but also has refused to endorse the Christian savior as white.

Since the earliest days of America, Jesus was thought of as a white man.

When white Protestant missionaries brought Bibles and whitened images of Jesus to Native Americans, at least a few mocked what they saw.

Taking the imagery seriously, the Shawnee warrior Tecumseh asked future President William Henry Harrison, “How can we have confidence in the white people? When Jesus Christ came upon the earth you kill’d and nail’d him on a cross.”

It was not until around 1900 that a group of white Americans explicitly claimed Jesus was white.

Concerned that large numbers of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, especially Jewish immigrants, were “polluting” the nation, anti-immigrant spokesmen like attorney Madison Grant asserted the whiteness of Jesus to justify calls for exclusionary legislation.

READ MORE: From science and computers, a new face of Jesus

Making Jesus white was a means to distance him from Judaism.

“In depicting the crucifixion no artist hesitates to make the two thieves brunet in contrast to the blond Savior,” Grant wrote in his xenophobic best-seller "The Passing of the Great Race."

“This is something more than a convention,” Grant continued, and suggested that Jesus had “Nordic, possibly Greek, physical and moral attributes.”

Even Martin Luther King Jr. claimed that Jesus was white, after being asked why God created Jesus as a white man.

King responded that the color of Christ’s skin didn’t matter. Jesus would have been just as important “if His skin had been black.” He “is no less significant because His skin was white.”

READ MORE: Turkish town cashes in on Saint Nick legacy

Challenges to Christ’s whiteness have a long history, too.

Famed evangelist Billy Graham preached in the 1950s, and then wrote emphatically in his autobiography "Just As I Am," that, “Jesus was not a white man.”

But Graham was far from the first American to contradict the whiteness of Jesus. That honor goes to Methodist and Pequot Indian William Apess.

In 1833, he wrote to white Christians, “You know as well as I that you are not indebted to a principle beneath a white skin for your religious services but to a colored one.”

Almost 100 years later, the Jamaican born, “back-to-Africa” spokesman Marcus Garvey told his followers, “Never admit that Jesus Christ was a white man, otherwise he could not be the Son of God and God to redeem all mankind. Jesus Christ had the blood of all races in his veins.”

In our age, the color of Christ has become both politically dangerous and the butt of jokes.

In 2008, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s words “God damn America” and “Jesus was a poor black boy” almost derailed then-Sen. Barack Obama from winning the Democratic primary.

Now, Kelly bears the brunt of attacks and, in no surprise, was pilloried by comedians like Stewart and Stephen Colbert.

Few Americans went on public record against King when he asserted Jesus had white skin in the 1950s. Today, thousands upon thousands from virtually every race and tribe of Americans have taken Kelly’s words seriously and seriously disdained them.

All the chatter about Jesus being white (or not) shows how much America has changed. There used to be “whites’ only” restaurants and schoolrooms. Now, even Jesus cannot be called white without repercussions.

What the debate hides, however, is what Jesus of the Bible actually did and how he related to people.

The gospels are full of discussions about Jesus and bodies. He healed the blind and those who suffered from disease. He touched and was touched by the sick. His body was pierced by thorns, a spear and nails. And he died.

READ MORE: What all those Jesus jokes tell us

The phenotype of Jesus was never an issue in the Bible. Neither Matthew, nor Mark, nor Luke, nor John mentioned Christ’s skin tone or hair color. None called him white or black or red or brown.

Obsessions about race are obsessions of our age, not the biblical one. When asked what mattered most, Jesus did not say his skin tone or body shape. He instructed his followers to “love the Lord your God with all your heart” and to “do unto others as you would have done unto you.”

Maybe this Christmas season, we can reflect not so much on whether or not Jesus was white and instead consider what it meant for him to be called the “light” of the world.

Edward J. Blum is the co-author of The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America. He can be followed on Twitter @edwardjblum. The views expressed in this column belong to Blum alone.

- CNN Religion Editor

Filed under: Art • Belief • Bible • Billy Graham • Black issues • Christianity • Discrimination • Faith • God • Jesus • News media • Opinion • Persecution • Prejudice • Race • United States

soundoff (7,485 Responses)
  1. Parson

    A comment about His skin color.
    But first and more importantly – Be careful the way you use the name Jesus here. He is not just an historical figure. You will find out when you leave this Earth what is real and who He is. If He is what He says He is, and He is, then you should know the name Jesus is a very holy name and should not be bantered about the way it is in media and entertainment. Why else is this name which the bible calls the name above every other name used as the most popular swear word today? The devil is not worried about the names of the founders of other religions. Those names have no power.
    Also it is amusing when people call Christians ignorant and uninformed while giving more credence to characters in fantasies and science fiction, believing in vampires and ghosts, whereas Christians have the real thing.
    Anyway, yes, the Son of God, who actually came to this world in the body of Jesus Christ, came to us in a body that was holy and pure, without sin, and that body was in fact tan or olive colored like many other people in the middle east. However, unlike many of his contemporaries Jesus was tall, about six foot. He had shoulder length brown hair and his eyes were also lighter than many of the dark eyed people of his time.
    This is true. But that will come out later.
    More importantly, believe He is who He says He is. After two thousand years there are still no credible counter claims to His existence and we are still here believing. What greater proof is there than that, though there is plenty evidence for His existence if you just look.

    December 14, 2013 at 2:24 am |
    • Amen

      awesome. well said Parson!

      December 14, 2013 at 2:45 am |
    • redzoa

      "However, unlike many of his contemporaries Jesus was tall, about six foot. He had shoulder length brown hair and his eyes were also lighter than many of the dark eyed people of his time.
      This is true. But that will come out later."

      Perhaps you could provide support for these claims? There appears to be no true consensus, but your description certainly doesn't align with the consensus of scholars:
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Race_and_appearance_of_Jesus#Forensic_Reconstruction

      "After two thousand years there are still no credible counter claims to His existence and we are still here believing. What greater proof is there than that, though there is plenty evidence for His existence if you just look."

      Existence as a man is one thing. Self-referencing claims of divine origin from a holy book is quite different. That many people believe something does not equal validity of the belief (i.e. argumentum ad populum fallacy).

      December 14, 2013 at 3:01 am |
    • tallulah13

      There are no contemporary accounts of Jesus' life. There is no evidence at all of any of the miraculous events attributed to Jesus. Much of the christian religion was created by a man who never even met Jesus. Your fan-boy description of Jesus is
      a product of your imagination, doubtless derived from the imagery created by European artists.

      December 14, 2013 at 4:06 am |
  2. Dude

    Hey fox and cnn you both suck.

    December 14, 2013 at 2:23 am |
    • Evert van Vliet

      You too as long as you don't share why.

      December 14, 2013 at 2:26 am |
  3. woody

    Jesus if he was was born on the continent of Asia at Asia Minor and would have not been white as portrayed by so many . If you follow the news with information on Syria , Syria too is at Asia Minor . We have to remember too the bible was written 300 years after Jesus and none of the Authors would have ever even known Jesus .

    December 14, 2013 at 2:12 am |
  4. CSD

    She's stupid even for Fox amoeba.

    December 14, 2013 at 2:06 am |
  5. Evert van Vliet

    They have something in common yet it's not pigmentation but imagination, come to think of it; it's all they 'are'.

    December 14, 2013 at 2:00 am |
  6. JM

    Why do crazy people think that a lack of melanin is somehow a sign of superiority? God chose to send His son to earth as a poor Jewish boy to save all people. Good news. So many crazy people claim to be Christian but seem to be full of nothing but hate and bad news...

    “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

    13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,

    14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
    and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

    December 14, 2013 at 1:59 am |
    • Evert van Vliet

      Funny, because jews 'are' a fantasy too…assumptions 'r' us.

      December 14, 2013 at 2:08 am |
    • Andala3

      FICTION.
      (lol)

      December 14, 2013 at 2:11 am |
  7. 1hiflyer

    Two things can be said about this
    Acts 17
    Therefore, the One whom you worship without knowing, Him I proclaim to you: 24 “God, who made the world and everything in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands. 25 Nor is He worshiped with men’s hands, as though He needed anything, since He gives to all life, breath, and all things. 26 And He has made from ONE BLOOD every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their preappointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings, 27 so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us;

    Galatians 2:6
    6 But from those who seemed to be something—whatever they were, it makes no difference to me; God shows personal favoritism to NO man—for those who seemed to be something added nothing to me.

    White or black is irrelevant to God. It just one of many ways to divide and separate people into controllable groups.

    December 14, 2013 at 1:54 am |
    • Barry

      Jesus was a Capricorn, who cares what color??? I think Jesus was COOL. He did the deal. A man of grace and principle, faith, Words cannot express the gifts he gave to us all.

      December 14, 2013 at 2:05 am |
      • Evert van Vliet

        Faith?…. in order to believe anything there's the need for making observations and a little reasoning.

        Santa, jesus as well as god, jews and americans are as cold as stone in that respect.

        Otherwise it's (still) an awesome planet..

        December 14, 2013 at 2:13 am |
  8. Danko Ramone

    If there was a Jesus, he was a swarthy brownish middle easterny Jewish guy. Santa is whatever color anyone wants to picture him as. Kelly knows he's not real, right?

    December 14, 2013 at 1:54 am |
    • Paul Preiswerck

      After listening to her talk, I'm not too sure. She seems a bit gullible and dippy. She does reinforce the blonde stereotypes.

      December 14, 2013 at 2:00 am |
  9. NorthVanCan

    What ever people say about Jesus one thing is for sure, Jesus musta been one hell of a guy!

    December 14, 2013 at 1:53 am |
  10. Bill S.

    I don't know about Santa, but I'm pretty sure Jesus was Jewish.

    December 14, 2013 at 1:51 am |
  11. Get real

    Jesus wasn't white, would never own a gun, and would never vote Republican.

    December 14, 2013 at 1:51 am |
    • Andala3

      WHAT he said.

      December 14, 2013 at 2:14 am |
  12. NorthVanCan

    Jesus musta ta been a capitalist American. Its say so in the Bibble, so it musta be twoo.

    December 14, 2013 at 1:46 am |
  13. chameleojack

    the person who wrote this article actually sounds impressed that Americans predominantly DON'T think Jesus was "white". Probably one of those brilliant journalists who said Americans were "too racist" to elect Obama, too.

    December 14, 2013 at 1:44 am |
  14. chameleojack

    My eyes are open. I never held Fox News in high esteem, but I never would have expected something this demonstrably stupid to have been said.

    December 14, 2013 at 1:37 am |
  15. Paul Preiswerck

    Who really cares if Jesus and Santa Clause are white or not? Neither of them are real. Do you know how stupid it sounds when people are fighting over the colour of an adults imaginary friends? Seriously!!!

    December 14, 2013 at 1:33 am |
    • mysanta

      My ma was my real santa. Thinking that today, I think we should not tell a lie to our kids.

      December 14, 2013 at 2:10 am |
      • Evert van Vliet

        " I think we should not tell a lie to our kids."

        But then america falls off the map too!..and money and race and kings&queens&princesses and of course mandatory respect for all this kind of utterly nonsense….especially the 'right' to inherit whatever comes in ever so handy and/or to kindly refuse all else.

        December 14, 2013 at 2:25 am |
  16. Wally Lind

    Jesus was a Jew from ancient Palestine, if they were white skinned, so was he. But as was said, that characteristic had less meaning, as far as we know, than it does among African-Americans today, who are obsessed with the color of their skin. In fact it is unbelievable have much that is so, and how much money Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson make form that obsession, and the white fear of it. I saw Thursdays' OReilly Factor, which has a clip of Sharpon with a white Park Service woman holding an umbrella over him that made him look like both Benito Mussolini and a space alien. He was a joke. Like most so-called races their is a rage of skin colors that blend into each other, that makes this whole topic a joke, and guys like Sharpton a charlatan.

    December 14, 2013 at 1:33 am |
    • FT

      ofcourse they weren't white skinned. look at any palestinian today. this matters because it makes christians be more symphathetic to whites in conflicts like Israel-Palestine.

      December 14, 2013 at 1:35 am |
    • mysanta

      Jesus was indeed a Jew. His mom sobbed and was alone during his birth. It was early or mid Fall.

      December 14, 2013 at 2:34 am |
  17. canastakid

    It was Fox news....what else needs to be said?

    December 14, 2013 at 1:31 am |
    • Wally Lind

      Fox is the best of the cable news outfits, but they have their moments too. At least they try. MSNBC doesn't even try to present anything like the news. There is no Special Report there or at CNN, for that matter.

      December 14, 2013 at 1:35 am |
      • Bottoms up

        [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nBeUGqeYsQg&w=640&h=390]

        December 14, 2013 at 1:48 am |
  18. Cochise

    No Jesus was not white, he also wasn't the messiah.

    December 14, 2013 at 1:27 am |
    • Mike

      The thing is, Jesus wasn't white european nor was he black african in the same way that american blacks are. They are both racist stereotypes.

      December 14, 2013 at 1:34 am |
  19. kr

    Jesus was an Asian, so was Confucius, so was Budda, so was Mohammed.

    December 14, 2013 at 1:13 am |
    • Wally Lind

      So Asian, like the rest of those terms is meaningless.

      December 14, 2013 at 1:39 am |
  20. free2beme59

    Get over it. Your parents told you Santa wasn't real when you got older, but forgot to tell you Jesus was a myth too.

    December 14, 2013 at 1:10 am |
    • Wally Lind

      No, Jesus wasn't a myth, he was the Christ, the spreader of the "golden rule" throughout the ancient world, and on to ours. He built his church on Peter, and it turned violent with the times, until it started to turn back onto Jesus's path. If it continues on that path it may transform the world again. Francis is Jesus's man, let's see what he can do.

      December 14, 2013 at 1:47 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.